HOTARD: Tigers try to excel again in kicking game

We know about the 16 starters the LSU football team returns on offense and defense. We know about the Russell Shepards, the Morris Claibornes and the stockpile of offensive linemen.

But what about the loss of Josh Jasper? And Derek Helton? What about replacing the side of Patrick Peterson that struck the Heisman pose? That was on a punt return, remember?

For all the talent LSU has returning on offense and defense, the key to their success could be whether they maintain their spectacular play in football’s other third.

LSU ranked eighth in the nation last year in kickoff returns, 11th in punt returns and 13th in net punting and Jasper made more field goals (28) than any kicker in the country.

But all that’s left from the core group is senior long snapper Joey Crappell.

LSU even lost erstwhile walk-on Daniel Graff, a mainstay covering kicks and punts for what seemed like a decade. Not to mention Joe Robinson, the National Special Teams Coach of the Year.

“People overlook it so many times,” new kicker Drew Alleman said of special teams, “but it’s there and it’s part of the game.”

Nobody who watched LSU last year would disagree.

When he wasn’t executing PATs with ease or settling pooch punts deep inside an opponent’s red zone, Jasper was sweeping right end on a bounce-pass, fake field goal to beat Florida in The Swamp. He also converted a couple of fake punts in 2010.

But Jasper will best be remembered as LSU’s most accurate kicker, a two-year starter who finished his career 47-for-56 on field goals and 75-for-76 on PATs.

Helton, who flipped the ball to Jasper on the famous Florida fake, averaged 45.7 yards on 34 punts last year with 14 downed inside the 20. His 82-yard punt at Arkansas was the second-longest in school history.

Then there’s Peterson, who returned two punts for touchdowns in LSU’s first four games.

Where would the Tigers have finished last year if not for their brilliance on special teams? How many of the six games they won by six points or less would have gone the other way?

Former New York Giants assistant Thomas McGaughey takes over for Robinson, who left in February to become North Carolina’s defensive line coach.

Brad Wing is in a battle with D.J. Howard and Alleman, who kicks and punts, to replace Helton. Tyrann Mathieu leads a list of athletic, speedy playmakers who hope to pick up where Peterson left as a return man.

And if you’re looking for another Graff-like cover ace, Alleman said to keep an eye on sophomore Seth Fruge, a walk-on from Welsh with long blond hair and a nose for contact.

“We’re stepping out there knowing we have some big shoes to fill,” Alleman said. “I think we’re ready.”

With the schedule LSU plays this season, the Tigers are sure to win some games by completing a key pass or making a clutch tackle.

Special teams, too, could decide a few.